For most agricultural endeavors, a farmer looks for the richest and healthiest soil one can find. Typically, you want good soil because it helps grow your vegetables and keep them from struggling or dying.
But for every rule, there is an exception. In this case, vinifera is clearly different.
This isn’t to say that grape vines don’t thrive in excellent soil, because they certainly do. The fact of the matter is that grape growers don’t want their grapes to have an easy time. The wine that comes from the grapes is far better if the grapes are fairly stressed and receive very little water. When a vine is watered a lot, the grapes become bulbous, which in turn makes the wine diluted. It also makes the foliage around the grapes grow vigorously, and this makes the wine taste vegetal.
Some of the best vineyards in the world are in places where you couldn’t grow anything but grapes. Rioja Spain, famous for its Tempranillos, is home to some of the most barren land in Spain — and in the world for that matter. The soil is terrible and there is very little water, but the wine is incredible and ageable for many decades.
In the Rhone region of France, there are vineyards in old river beds with nothing but rocks. The roots of the vines have to go down 10 feet just to find soil.
In Germany, they grow vines on steep valley hillsides that are full of slate. The slate helps reflect the sun and ripen the grapes.
Santa Cruz is no exception. Some of our best vineyards are in our most terrible soil. There is an excellent pinot noir vineyard in Ben Lomond where the vines grow in sand and receive no water. Most of our vineyards receive very little or no water once they have matured. We have enough rainfall here that the vines get what they need to survive.
I recently visited Don Naumann, a small producer of excellent chardonnay and merlot, and he showed us around his vineyards. When I asked which was his best lot of vines, he laughed and said: “Those up there on the hill. The soil is terrible up there, it’s all rocks — perfect for great merlot!”
Naumann’s vineyards are located just below the famous Montebello vines of Ridge Winery, where the soil is comparable. This terrible soil anomaly is just another way that terroir — the special characteristics of a place’s geography — plays an imperative role in the outcome of wine. It always comes down to this single factor, ubiquitous in the wine world, that separates good, great and legendary vineyards. Cheers!
Austin Twohig is a certified sommelier and partner in The Santa Cruz Experience, which conducts winery tours in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].

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